We have all seen movies. The foggy and dirty streets of London full of beggars and streets sellers while elegant carriages transport ladies and gentlemen to splendid parties where they will discuss the hottest gossip and, if they are lucky enough, catch a glimpse of some aristocrat or minor royal.
Yes, this is Victorian times, but not as you would expect it.
Victoriana is one of Cubicle 7’s flagship games and it’s been so for quite some while now. In its second edition, this game has been around for many years and in that time it has evolved into a terribly solid and little-known gem with incredible potential.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Forgive me. Let me explain what this game is all about.
Victoriana is chronologically located in 1867, at the very apogee of the Victorian era. However, now the glorious splendour of the empire, leading an age of scientific discovery and mystical wonders, is populated with eldren, beast men and women, orcs and ogres, halfings and gnomes sharing their space with humans in a society dominated by class and money. And then there is the church of the Illuminant, which, with an iron rod (and a few whips here and there) regulates and controls the use of Magic in the world.
Just as in real Victorian times, without money you are nothing. Without class you are even less. Times are hard and unfair. Common people have a really tough time and making a living is a really hard task one has to face or die. Children work. Men rule over women. The church is incredibly powerful. Life is hard. Very hard.
However, Victoriana offers a massive wealth of opportunity as well as hardship. Shrewd individuals can have the chances they need to move up in society or, at least, make money. So do ruthless individuals. Scientists create wondrous machines and engineering portents never achieved before every day. Magicians tap into incredibly powerful forces, risking soul and body, to harness Magic and those with little care for themselves, or maybe because they know better than most, dabble in Necromancy and Demonology.
The setting is extremely congruent. The mix of real history and fantasy has been well balanced and everything feels very “realistic”. This is partly thanks to the honesty and uncompromising approach to the truth of Victorian society portrayed in the book. The sexism and misogyny of the time are clearly explained and tackled full front. So is the class system. No paragraph is spared to explain how the aristocracy is mostly above reproach, while children work from very early age and commoners are looked down on. Curiously enough, though racism is left out. In fact, there is even an insert to explain why racism doesn’t exist in the world of Victoriana.
Although I am really happy that they have been brave enough to leave those subjects in. I am dubious though, as to how literally they can be taken in-game. In a group of players with mixed genders and classes, taken too literally, it could ruin the game and annoy many players. It is fantastic for creating atmosphere and setting the frame where the players will develop, of that there is no doubt. For the players, though, I would suggest taking the setting with a pinch of salt and take it easy.
The book itself is hard cover and very solid. Printed in black and white on a fairly resistant paper, it has a very weird art direction and a very simple layout that need attention to detail. Although the illustrations in the book are, in their majority, good, the styles are so different and the quality of the printing so varied that the whole thing feels a bit disjointed. I will admit that, when flicked through the pages initially to get a feel for the book, I wasn’t impressed. The thing that disappoints me the most is that the art direction doesn’t do the game enough justice.
Whereas this is a serious and dark game full of danger and truly dire situations, the naïve style of the illustrations made me believe when I first opened the book, that it’d be a light hearted and simple game more akin to Indiana Jones than Call of Cthulhu. And this game is a lot closer to Call of Cthulhu, I can tell you.
The dice system, called the Heresy Engine, is very, very simple. Roll a pool of d6. Results of 1 and 6 are successes. 6 are rerolled for another chance of success. The more successes you get, the better you perform your action. Simple as that!
Of course it is not as simple as that! You will also get black dice. They are rolled at the same time and they will take successes away. If you roll more black successes than white successes, you fail. That can be bad, especially if you’re using one of the many types of magic.
I have to say I like the system. Although you could potentially end up with a huge load of dice to be rolled, there are tips and ways to reduce the number of dice to keep things manageable. It can be precise enough, flexible enough and given the chance, cinematic enough.
There is nothing revolutionary about the Heresy Engine. Nothing here to aid in storytelling either, but it is so easy to pick up and modify if you need to, that the lack of originality doesn’t get in the way. Neither does the system, by the way. It does feel very right for the setting, maybe because everything has been built around it. Overall I did find it very satisfying, especially when used with the more advanced rules in the back of the book.
The character creation is also fairly simple and comprehensive. Characters can swap complications for privileges in order to tailor the typical abilities and skills to the player’s ideas. Although everything comes with a price, it is a fair one and it usually makes sense.
The machismo and classism I mentioned earlier becomes the perfect ground to generate characters that will go against the norm. Adventuring women or out of place aristocrats can be terribly fun characters to play, although they could also be frustrating for the player if everything is against them because of who they are playing.
The professions and skills the players can choose from are not many, but they are well explained and the game does encourage you to invent your own too. The explanations given, also come with ideas and suggestions to help newcomers, or those who, simply, just want to generate a character quickly.
Combat can be a bit fiddly. You’ll have to get used to subtracting successes from attacker and defendant in order to find out how much damage a weapon has done. This will take a few combats to get used to but, overall, it is not a bad system. In fact when you and your players have got used to it, it will only take you a couple of seconds to figure out who’s done what.
It is not a particularly elegant system, but it works well and it can be as precise as you need it to be.
Of course we have magic and this is one of the most under-exploited parts of this game. The magical arena is ripe for ideas. Magic is dangerous and comes in many shapes. From the standard wizard, to the pagan Wiccan ways, rune lore, divine magic, necromancy and demonology, to mediums, you are spoilt for choice if you want to have a character with magical knowledge.
Magic is very dangerous, though, and also very lethal. Every time you try a spell there is a risk of failure. Failure in magical terms can be very, very expensive.
The list of spells is short. Too short, which is just as well that there are a supplement that expand on this. The magical system got me very excited. Whereas I have always found that magic in a world where technology also reigns can be out of place, or simply not good enough, here there is a perfect explanation for the existence of magic and a way to co-exist with science. Absolutely brilliant!
At the end of the book there is a chapter just for the GM that goes further into how to use the rules and run the game efficiently. A great addition to the rules, though some of those added rules could have gone in the main chapter without a problem. I can understand why they kept them separate, but I am not sure it adds anything to the game to keep them for the GM’s eyes only.
Victoriana is a gem that could still be polished to make it shine a great deal more.
Although the setting is very good, I missed some sort of clearer explanation as to its origins. I understand there are orcs and the rest, but why? Have they always been there? How are they explained? If they have always been there, why are ogres considered the lowest of the low? It needs a bit more genesis.
The book organisation itself could be reworked. Referencing things in game can be a bit tricky and a better organisation with chapters in the right places would aid a great deal.
I could talk a lot about the art direction, but I will just say that it needs looking into. Urgently! The different styles don’t marry very well. Too many different types of illustrations that fail to convey an atmosphere and sense of theme.
And atmosphere and theme this game has in spades! This game is dark and as dangerous as any Lovecraftian setting. The amount of ideas and possibilities for that game are just vast.
Let me put it this way. This game is Shadowrun in Victorian era. The only thing is that, at least for me, this game is a lot more compelling than Shadowrun. Maybe because it is based on a time where you just have to open a history book and get a campaign arc, or an NPC, or a place, or a war, or a scientific discovery…
With all I have said about the art direction of the book and the system being a bit fiddly, I would normally give a game three stars out of five. But I can’t. The game has been too well written and it is so incredibly rich and exciting that I have to lean on the side of fun rather than technicalities and raise that to four stars out of five. Very highly recommended game.
One condition though, Cubicle 7. I want more. A lot more!
Victoriana is available from:
If you have enjoyed this review, please consider donating a small amount of money to help support this website.
Thank you for your support!